Friday, March 31, 2006

We Are Not OK

What was it like to be a college student volunteering to spend Spring break cleaning out houses in New Orleans only to find the remains of a very young girl and a woman perhaps her grandmother huddled together in a ruined house, seven months after?

The newspapers don't tell us, because it was not an exceptional occurrence. As the headline moved by the Reuters News Agency summaries, Grim Find Shows Normalcy Still Eludes New Orleans.

We are not OK.

S.O.S. Katrina We Are Not OK is one of my favorite blog titles, and blogger Dangle's everyman chronicle of the disaster is a compelling view into not just the disaster, but one locals' visceral reaction to it. Almost everyone who blogs about New Orleans has made it their theme at one point or another, although I have not. What they try to say, in their particular stories of it all, is that we are not OK>

New Orleans author and blogger Poppy Z. Brite took up this same theme this week in an online community, offering her own summary of why We Are Not OK.

Occasionally I'm asked by friends Not From Here, "New Orleans is better now, right? You had Mardi Gras!" or "Are you doing OK?" or some variation. Sometimes, particularly if they're contemplating a visit, I even try to reassure them: it's very possible to have a good, safe time here; the French Quarter is fine; lots of restaurants and bars are open. In truth, though, New Orleans and most of its inhabitants are very much Not OK. I present to you a baker's dozen facts about life in the city seven months after the storm. Some are large, some small. I think many of them will surprise you...
No, we are not OK, New Orleans is not OK. It is a disaster zone after seven months. The current 200,000 residents are the walking wounded, many with a dangerously glassy eyed disconnection, others erupting routinely in anger. Those not crammed into tiny apartments or several families to a house on the Island--the sliver by the river of high land--are camping in the ruins of gutted homes without electricity or potable water. Another several hundred thousands remained scattered around the country with their lives in tatters. In Calcasieu parish there are still people living in tents. Mississippi along the coast is not much different from the pictures the world saw of the tsunami of Xmas 2004.

I am still living 1,200 miles away, and don't find much time as a single parent packing a house up to go to chitchat with people about New Orleans, or my imminent move back . Few ask why I would move back, and it surprises me. I take it to mean that they think things on the coast really are OK, that New Orleans is getting back to normal.

Things are not getting back to normal. I no longer read my local paper, except as I take copies and crumble pages into boxes and around things to move, but I read the Times Picayune on line every day. I know I am moving home to a place where the levees may or may not hold in the next storm, where homeowners insurance rates are skyrocketing if you can even get insurance, where the price of a dry home is almost ruinous, where because the government refuses to offer the same aid to the local utility they gladly gave ConEd after 9-11 I worry how we might pay a utility bill that could double what they were in the past.

I am taking my family, including my children, to a city over half of which is an empty wasteland of ruined homes, dark as the country at night because much of the city has no electricity, where the U.S. Government after seven months has not re-established reliable mail service even to the dry and secure parts of town, where garbage collection is not a routine but a cause for neighborhood celebration.

Why? I want people to ask me, why would I do this? I am going because we are not OK. And I am going because you don't ask anymore, whether you just don't want to know or because you have heard we are OK.

I am going home because the central government is trying to turn us into a needy interest group, and turn their back on their obligation to aid us, because it increasingly looks like we will be on our own. Remember that the vast majority of damage in New Orleans was the result of the failure of levees the Corps of Engineers, which knew were substandard and not up to the task. Because we have such a clear claim upon billions in compensation the government don't wish to pay, they must turn us into a something alien and undeserving.

We are not. Members of needy welfare groups don't work eight hours a day then return to a home that is bare studs inside to spend another six or eight hours working on their ruined homes by lantern light. They don't stand in line for hours to collect their mail so they can pay their bills on time because the post office won't resume regular deliveries, or spend their free time cleaning the parks and boulevards (we call them "neutral grounds"), or helping the elderly clean out their homes.

Needy welfare dependents don't willing go into the stink and the ruin in a place where one routinely finds the decayed remains of the dead.

These people are of a kind that the descendants of the hardy pioneers of North Dakota, where I now live, should understand. I am going because I have to be with them. I have to do what I can to save my city, the city I grew up in, the only city of a half dozen I've lived in that I've ever loved. I have to go to help prove that southerners in general and Orleanians in particular are not the grasshoppers among the American ants; we are the people who rebuilt after the civil war, the flood of 1927, the terrible hurricanes of the past.

I am going home to live among people who know that we are not OK. Every week, I hear or read something that cause me to boil up in a paroxysm of anger. This week's installment occurred when a local United States Senator announced an aid package for farmers, telling the local media that if we were spending billions on the Gulf Coast, we must not forget the farmers in North Dakota. Every county in the state was declared a disaster area at some point last year, he reminded us, and they want their cut of the money.

Disaster? I shouted out at the radio, pounding on the steering wheel. How could he dare compare the annual routine of too much or not enough rain, of wind and hail to what happened to the Gulf Coast? How many bodies did they pull out of homes last week in North Dakota, Senator? How many people are still living in tents or tin trailers seventh months after their "disaster"? Is half the population of your state (about the same size as the population of pre-flood New Orleans) living in another state, everything they own lost and owing a mortgage on a ruined home for which insurance will not pay? How many people are suffering traumatic stress disorder? One hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand?

Calm down, I reminded my self. Breathe. I went home and furiously packed boxes, in the adrenaline frenzy I had long ago when I dropped my motor bike on the Greater New Orleans Bridge and was almost run over by a semi, then went home and painted half my apartment in a night.

I'm not just angry at clueless congressmen from far away. I'm angry at our own, at our clueless mayor who turned away a bid to pay the city to haul away the tens of thousands of ruined cars in favor of one that will cost tens of millions, on the theory that FEMA would reimburse us. I'm angry at the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which sent armed guards into a mass at the city's (perhaps the nation's) oldest parish founded by blacks, to protect their not very popular spokesman and an out of parish priest from parishioners who sat in the pews holding protest signs and singing We Shall Not Be Moved to protest the closing of their parish.

We are not OK.

I need to live among people who know we are not OK, people who share the same anger and despair. I need to find a way to turn that anger into energy to rebuild a city, a culture, a way of life. That's why I'm going back to live just blocks from vacant neighborhoods of rubble and ruin. If I were to stay in Fargo, the anger and frustration will surely kill me.

Not everyone can go home. We have the resources (just barely) to afford it. My children are bright enough to get into the decent magnet or charter schools in a city where the school system was a disaster before the flood. We don't have a mortgage on a slab that was once a home hanging over our heads.

The people who are scattered from Austin to Atlanta, the ones who can't go home because they cannot afford it, because their jobs in New Orleans were lost with their homes and everything they owned, or because they are afraid, you need to tell your new neighbors and co-workers: we are not OK.

We need to tell everyone who will listen that this is not an abstract fight over how many zeroes can dance on the crown of a pinheaded appropriations committee member, that we are not just another needy interest group begging for money, this is not a debate over whether we shall or shall not have a new Super Wal-Mart in our neighborhood. It is a battle for the soul of our city, and a battle for the soul of America.

We are not OK, but tens of thousands more are coming home each month anyway--evacuees and ex pats alike. We are coming home to save the soul of our city, to do what we can to ensure a unique way of life and three hundred years of history are not lost to neglect or Disney-inspired "redevelopment". We are coming home knowing the rest of America seems unprepared to pay the cost, ready to do it alone if we must.

We can't save the soul of America. Only the rest of the country can do that. If they turn their back on New Orleans, if they refuse to pay the just compensation for the criminal negligence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, if they deny us the same aid they gladly offered New York a few short years ago, if they won't pay the cost of the denuding our coast for a navigable river and our oil-and-gas, then the soul of America will be lost.

I can't blame you if you have disaster fatigue. Every day the newspaper brings another tail of woe. Thousands die when an earthquake collapses their ancient brick homes, a creaking wooden ferry overturns somewhere at sea and everyone drowns. It's almost too much to contemplate. Perhaps the cult of LaHaye is right, and the end is nigh.

Before your turn the page, think about this: New Orleans is not OK. We are not OK. And we are not discussing some distant, benighted village in the hills of Afghanistan or on the coast of Africa or Asia. We are talking about your neighbors--not just that your fellow Americans, but right in your own town. There is not a significant city or town in America that isn't hosting some cohort of the displaced. You pass us every day on the street, but perhaps you don't recognize the despair or the anger that squeezes at our hearts like an angry fist.

Know this: we are not OK. We will rebuild, with or without your help. We will, if we must, save ourselves. Whether your come to our aid as all honor and justice and charity demands will determine if you can save yourselves.

Right on, my frost-bitten friend. We "get by" and we "manage." We are miles from "good" or "normal."

New Orleans needs stout and true hearts like you right now. Hurry home.

Markus, it's Saturday morning. Got 3 e-mails from you already. Wanted to chill but wanted more so to be inspired again.

Thank you my man......not only well stated but I am now once again inspired. This is truly a great least for me.

Now get your ass down here!
Done! What a great idea this was. Go bloggers! Go bloggers! Go bloggers!
"Stout and true hearts?" Damn, tim, I feel like I should sign-on to sail around the horn and hunt leviathan. Just call me Ishmael.
This has gotten very little press so far - someone should run with it. FEMA is closing all of the New Orleans camps/tent cities that volunteers are staying in, as of April 10. These tents have been housing the volunteers gutting houses from organizations ranging from ACORN to Habitat for Humanity. the only stories on this so far on the net have been:
Christian Broadcasting Network: and
Talking Points Memo Cafe

This is ridiculous -- the very least that the federal government should do is house and feed volunteers coming to help.
Blessed Be Markus!

I've been home for two weeks, and there is just so very much to do. We need your energy, just as we all need each other to get through the post-Deluge era of our city.

Rebuilding here will be the greatest adventure of our time. We, together, can do this, but it doesn't work well if we aren't on the ground here in New Orleans.

Get your tush home!


"Reparations for all New Orleanians"
"We can't save the soul of America. Only the rest of the country can do that. If they turn their back on New Orleans, if they refuse to pay the just compensation for the criminal negligence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, if they deny us the same aid they gladly offered New York a few short years ago, if they won't pay the cost of the denuding our coast for a navigable river and our oil-and-gas, then the soul of America will be lost."

Isn't this the heart of it? While people look away because it's too painful to see and blame the victims out of self-rationalization that they somehow asked for it by living there to asuage the creeping idea that it could happen anywhere to any one of us, it's their own selves, the "soul of America" that is at risk. Those who look or write or, more importantly, those who labor there to keep this important city and her institutions alive long enough to have the chance to be rebuilt, their souls are not at risk. They (you) will have done what they could. I will never forget Donna Brazille laughing at George Will's suggestion that New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt. She said (in so many words), "Oh, it will be rebuilt. I know those people. They will rebuild it with their own hands if they must."

Go Markus. Thank you so much for sharing your words with us.
We are NOT okay - and now I hear it may be a full quarter of a century until we are sorta normal (not as if we were close to begin with ;~)

May I link your blog in mine?

Gina in N'Awlins

Thanks for this powerful expression of your anger and frustration. How could you be OK, with all that has happened in the wake of Katrina?

I've been amazed by how difficult it is to get information about what's happening along the Gulf Coast, and about its former residents scattered across the country. (There are folks from New Orleans here in Seattle; I know that they're running into problems with housing because the feds can't get their act together. No surprise there.) I don't understand this country's ability to ignore an ongoing disaster. That this lack of concern is even possible is indication to me that we as a country are not OK. And we have no excuse.

I hope your move back home to New Orleans goes as smoothly as possible.

The soul of America is just 'bout gone. That's why, in my morose bottom trough of bipolar depression, I'm thinking that Australia is looking better and better if NOLA is not an option.

NOLA, or nothing. At least, nothing here.
Great post filled with justfiable anger and inspiration to your friends in NO trying to live life. I wish I could move there, but all I could afford would be a used tent or trailer. Keep up the pressure on the idiots. The country must be constantly cattle-prodded to be kept awake and know that your City is not OK. My best the spirit and sweat of the people of NO in renewing your home.
I had told myself to stop making angry comments on weekends, but somebody has to say it. It's a good thing that it's becoming increasingly obvious that the Federal Government, through the ACoE, is responsible for the disaster, because it would be extremely difficult to argue that the city is even trying to help itself. Worse, people seem to be reluctant to ask even the most obvious questions about the city's recovery effort.

Just take a quick look at Poppy Z. Brite's piece. She questions whether the car removal contract was actually written on a napkin, without noticing that the mayor employed the smokescreen without making the assertion--minor but typical (to be fair everyone does seem to be outraged, they just don't seem to notice the evasive non-statement). She brings up the traffic lights, yet nobody seems
to notice how quickly the light at one of the city's busiest intersections was fixed--after the T/P ran an editorial saying that nobody seemed to know why it was still off. She brings up the lack of police presence outside of the sliver, indeed other bloggers and even reporters have noticed, yet nobody really questions the reason for it. Remember, the layoffs only affected civilian positions within NOPD. My guess would be that many officers who've quit or been fired haven't been replaced-- to avoid making other cuts, including the huge pay raises that upper level city employees received four years ago. I could go on and on.

Sorry to sound like Tom Tancredo on this one, but it's hard to take the brave talk of ourselves alone seriously when everybody acts a bunch of Chinese monkeys about the city's own recovery, um, effort. It's not like asking the questions will give the Hasterts in Washington any ideas they haven't already come up with.
Great writing. Praying for you, writing for you, and proudly displaying a rebuild N.O. ribbon on my car.

Keep the faith.
To Kimberly (and others who do "Get it")

Those of you who know me know that at times, anger could be my middle name and I wish I could be calmer at times.

However Kimberly, I can understand the "individual" lack of concern of what has happened. There is no way most can comprehend what has happened to us and the condition many of the people of The UNITED STATES GULF COAST are in. It really isn't their fault. And I am not holding the media outlets accountable either. You cannot capture what I am seeing down here. For the first time in my life, I am seeing "The Living Walking Dead" and the bad don't need to go to Blockbuster to rent it.
I should probably just drop it, but I assume that last dig was aimed at me. So I'll share what I wrote in explanation:

I would frequently hear suburban friends and relatives wonder if the city was doing to get rid of the debris and wrecked cars and get the traffic lights working. The common theory was that the recovery was delayed by either cronyism and incompetence or because the city was deliberately neglecting the high profile stuff--in order to appear more deserving of outside help. Sad (to me the personally distressing thing) thing is, I could disagree, but not as strongly as I would have liked, not honestly.

I've heard that speculation from reasonable people as well as N.O. haters, I stand by everything I said.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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